Wednesday, July 10, 2013

19 April 2013 A Continental Journey, Day 1

Detroit, MI and Bowling Green, OH:

The descent into Detroit seemed to take forever, perhaps because the Detroit airport is quite a distance from Detroit itself.  Under leaden skies, the long approach give me an extended view of the greater Detroit area, someplace I have never been.  My first reaction was surprise that all of the trees were still leafless.  The foliage back in sunny California had been in full bloom for weeks, so my first adjustment to the Midwest was to realize that true spring was still to come.

I had finally reached the point where my adventure could truly begin.  Detroit was the airport nearest the town in Ohio where the objective of my trip resided.  Or usually did, when it wasn’t being delivered directly to me at the Detroit airport.

I had flown two thirds of the way across the country to buy a car I had seen only in pictures from a man I had spoken to on the phone two or three times.  It was not as unreasonable as it sounds, and it sounds plenty unreasonable.  Searching for cars is a task for which the Internet is particularly well-suited.  Make, model, year, color, options and prices, among other criteria, can all be entered into search engines, which will not only locate cars meeting your requirements, but can perform the search regularly and notify you when it finds cars you might want. 

On an otherwise nondescript afternoon a week earlier, a car popped up on one of my searches that I hadn't seen before.  Because I checked my searches at least once a day, if not more often, I knew this was a new offering.  It was also a model type that should not have appeared in my searches because it should have been well outside my price range.  I immediately suspected that somewhere in the description I would find the fateful words "salvage title," something I had seen before with cars advertised at a price substantially lower than similar vehicles.  The description provided by the seller, however, did not indicate that anything was amiss, and in fact the pictures suggested that the car was particularly well cared for.  If the car was as advertised, it was being offered at an obscene discount, and would surely be snapped up quickly. 

I wrote to the owner that afternoon inquiring about the car.  He wrote back, and we engaged in meaningful dialogue so quickly that by the next morning, his wife had scanned and e-mailed to me all of the maintenance and repair records for the car.  By the end of the next day, I had arranged with the owner and the local mechanic to have the car inspected.  By the following Monday, having received a clean bill of health report from the mechanic, I offered to buy the car.  I agreed to the asking price, because I could not in good conscience justify a reduction in a price that was substantially below market level for that model.  I also did not want to give another buyer leverage.   Indeed, the seller informed me that there was somebody else interested in the car.  With my offer in hand, he was concerned that he would have to wait a long time to consummate the deal.  Informing him that I had already figured out how to be in his neighborhood by the end of the week put his mind at ease and sealed the deal.  He did not require me to make an earnest money deposit, figuring that my purchase of an airline ticket indicated my intentions sufficiently.  The only difficulty was how to get to his town, which was an hour south of Detroit.  Being the solid Midwestern gentleman that he was, the owner offered to drive up to Detroit to pick me up from the airport, in the car I was to buy.  That seemed like a pretty good opportunity for a test drive to me.

Stepping off airplane Detroit, I called the owner to let them know I had landed.  He was just minutes away from the curb, so I stepped outside into the stinging wind to await my first view in the flesh of what I expected would be my new car in just over one hour's time.

As I expected, the first view was memorable.  Coming up the access road to the arrivals curb was an impossibly low and black Porsche.  I was inconceivable that I was about to own that beast.  I waved to the owner, who pulled the car up to the curb.  He offered to let me drive the car immediately, but I had no interest in attempting to negotiate the maze of roads that lead away from the airport.  I settled into the car, a bit shocked that the interior I was experiencing for the first time would soon be an interior I would become intimately familiar with as “mine” if all went as planned.

The picture in the ad that hooked me
I don’t consider myself the more natural conversationalist, so I carefully planned my next steps.  I knew that he had just returned from the Masters golf tournament, so I prompted him to talk about it, and we chatted easily about his experience there.  We got along very well and enjoyed our conversation.  As we headed south, he eventually pulled over into a highway rest area so I could take over the driving duties.  There's nothing like taking a first test drive of a car while on the way to the bank to conclude the sales transaction.  I just prayed that everything would work, that I would fit, and that I would love it.
Check, check and check.

The owner described features and components of the car as we drove, while I tried to stay alert to Friday rush hour traffic in a state I had never visited in a car I had never driven.  Adding to the general stress of the event was the fact that the owner's bank would soon be closing, just about the time we estimated we would arrive there.  He called ahead to make sure they would stay open until the last minute, which is when we expected we would pull in.  Sure enough, I parked the car not more than two minutes before five o'clock in the afternoon.  I sent the owner inside to keep the bank doors open while I took a moment to take at least one cursory look around the car.  It seemed kind of a crazy way to buy a car, but everything had checked out to that point, so I did not expect to find any major faults.  Finding none, I went inside and watched as the bank manager locked the door behind me.  In a matter of moments, I scratched out an impromptu bill of sale, the owner signed over the title, I handed over a cashier’s check, and the owner deposited the check in his account.  Just like that, I owned a ridiculously fabulous car, 2500 miles from home.

I gave the owner a ride back to his house, which was less than a mile away in a community of large, newish houses on a golf course.  As the skies darkened with light rain, we dashed inside so I could meet the owner's wife, son and mother in law briefly while he, with his innate Midwestern charm, put together a small pack of water bottles and granola bars for my journey.

Minutes later, I pulled away from the (former) owner's house in my new car, with 2500 miles to go get home, biting wind and rain starting to whip up, and less than two hours of daylight remaining.  And I hadn't even had lunch.

I drove back to town the way we had come in, the only way I knew how.  I noticed some fast food restaurants on my first pass through the town, and pulled off into the parking lot of one of them.  I switched the engine off and sat for a moment, simultaneously giddy and terrified.  The phrase, "what have I done?" applied equally to each sentiment.  There is nothing left to do but grab a bite to eat, pray that I didn't pick up a door ding in the parking lot in my first half-hour of ownership, and get started on the journey.  The thrilled tension I felt in that moment foreshadowed the adventures that lay ahead.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Future Olympians, Right Here

We have not been a swim team family in a couple of years.  Our experiences with the swim team gave us some great memories of Michael's accomplishments, provided us with a way to quickly integrate ourselves into our new community, and resulted in at least one water-safe child.

Just because we are no longer active participants in the swimming season does not mean we are completely separated from that world.  With the pool across the corner from us, we are constantly aware of the season's schedule.  Michael and I took some time to enjoy the team's time trials last weekend, in fact.  We also remain dimly aware of the accomplishments of the area's many (many) youth swimmers.

Last week, our community enjoyed an achievement unprecedented in the history of youth swimming.  In the sectional finals of the 100 meter breaststroke, a swimmer from Campolindo High (Kelly's school) broke the national high school record for the event set by a current Olympian.  That is remarkable enough, but moreso is the fact that a swimmer from rival Miramonte High finished second, also under the prior national record.  More remarkable than that, and capping off a truly unique race, the third place swimmer also finished under the previous record.  Those in the know are calling this one of the best races in high school swimming history, if not the best outright.  (Here is an interesting interview with one of the coaches involved in the event; as the article demonstrates, the swimming community is extremely close-knit in our part of the world.)

The second place swimmer, Charlie Wiser, was a regular swimmer in the league in which our swim team competes.  His name is on the "best times" walls of all of the nine pools that make up our league, for all sorts of events at all different ages.  He was demonstrably one of those kids who shows at age 7 that he is going to be something special at age 18, and so it came to pass.  I saw him swim only once at our pool, but I will never forget it.  After watching hours of youth swimmers over the course of many meets, you develop a sense for what to expect out of the athletes in terms of form and speed.  In the water, Wiser was like a different species.  He cut through the water more smoothly than anyone, carrying impossible amounts of speed so easily that it seemed inconceivable that he was not wearing flippers.  Even his turn was surgically precise and astonishing quicker than anyone else's.  I knew, even as I stood on the pool deck in the darkening evening at the end of an otherwise non-descript Wednesday dual meet, that I was seeing something rare and wonderful. 

Wiser has gone on to a notable high school career as both a swimmer and water polo player, and will continue his aquatic career at Stanford.  The funny thing is that you truly could see this coming for more than ten years.  It is a genuine pleasure to be around people, whatever their age might be, who are blessed to be able to compete at such a level that few people in history have ever attained such heights. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

19 April 2013
A Continental Journey, Day 1

Southwest Airlines Flight 361, somewhere over Iowa:

The frequent traveler is well versed in the many tricks, broad and subtle, that smooth the rough edges of air travel in this era of TSA handsiness.  Slip-on shoes.  Keys in the carry-on.  Toiletry liquids in a clear plastic bag pre-set on the top of the clothing just inside the zipper of the shoulder bag.  Laptop out and ready to go on the conveyer.  No overalls.  Business travelers always regret flying on Fridays and Mondays, when their fellow passengers are not equipped solely with a single small case and an innate sense of where they will sit, but instead are burdened with extra luggage, Macy's bags, unchecked strollers and unrestrained children.   Still, the smart traveler can insulate himself from most of the annoyances, gliding serenely by satisfied in his demonstration of superior traveling acumen.

Even the best laid plans remain are still subject to the whims and vagaries of the airline, however.  Little strikes fear into the heart of the proudly efficient traveler who has built a delicate daisy chain of connecting flights more than to hear the pilot announce, while still parked at the gate, that a gizmo in the cockpit is not working correctly ("oh, that little scamp," the pilot's tone of voice seems to say), and that you will all have to wait "until a new part is installed."  Then comes the heartbreak of the engines powering down.  Out come the mobile phones to bring up the airline's app to search, hoping against hope, for a later connection to make up for what will certainly be a delayed first leg of the trip.   Despair reigns, for of course it only takes one slip up, one small delay, for the entire itinerary to become utterly worthless.

Such was my state of mind this morning.  I spent the week monitoring a massive storm that laid a thick swath of snow across much of the middle of the country, among other effects essentially shutting down Wyoming for business.  Road conditions across the plains and Rockies will be of critical importance in the coming days, but all the projections showed that the weather should not be a factor for the latter, returning portion of my trip.  All I had to do was take a couple of closely-scheduled flights east to get to the launch of my adventure.  I did not count on the possibility that I might not even get to my starting point on time, however.  All this careful planning, undone by some glitchy line of code in a cockpit computer?  No, I've worked too hard to have it all fall to bits now.  Unpossible.

The travel gods took mercy on me.  After a twenty minute wait in which I thought of the terrible ripple effect on my plans that would follow from this single delay, the flight attendants called for the doors to be shut and secured.  The lead attendant stood by the cockpit door, looking like she meant to close it.  The engines began to spin up, and we were away.  Such joy!

Segment one took us over Nevada and Utah into Denver, at times revealing a glimpse of the road on which I will spend the next three days driving the opposite direction.  An interminable taxi in to the gate at Denver followed, but we were right on time.  Even better, considering the scant 40 minute overlap in my flights, my next airplane was directly across the concourse.  I had just enough time before boarding the next flight to check email, return a message to a client and send some emails home.  And throw out a post on Facebook, of course.

The aircraft is now angling downward toward a uniform cloud cover obscuring all of the upper Midwest.  I will soon bid farewell to the sunshine for a while.  Considering the treat that awaits, I don't think I will care much about the weather.
19 April 2013
A Continental Journey, Day 1 (Prologue)

Southwest Airlines Flight 315, somewhere over Nevada:

They say that every journey begins with just one step.  What they don't often mention is how early that first step usually is.  

The alarm roused me into 4 a.m. darkness, forcing me to bid a dreamland auf wiedersehen to either Sigfried or Roy ( I'm not sure which; it was the darker-haired of the two, the one mauled by his tiger).  We, along with a tiger or two, clearly were headed for a memorable quest.  No gathering of flamboyant Vegas showmen or large, dangerous cats could match the adventure awaiting me in the real world, though.   

My day would call to mind the toy cars from the days before microchips became the principle component of children's playthings.  You pull it back, away from its intended target, as the clicking spring gathers tension, anticipating the sudden release of coiled energy when at last you unleash the toy to dart pell-mell clear across the room.   Like the toy car, my pre-dawn alarm presaged a day of traveling east just so I could travel west again.  

A small car darting pell-mell would be involved.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Let's Put On A Show!

The rhythms of life change a little once your kids start high school.  Free time evaporates, and schoolwork is a constant presence.  The daily grind of school becomes an ever present drone that must be endured on a daily basis.

Kelly attends one of the best public high schools in the state, and has done extremely well in the three semesters she has completed so far.  The school prides itself on the sheer number of Advanced Placement classes offered (whether that is a legitimate cause for self-congratulation is debatable), and Kelly is well into her share of advanced courses.  The work is difficult and constant, but her effort and commitment are high and she brings home terrific grades.

There was a time when sports dominated Kelly's calendar much as Michael's.  Kelly loved volleyball and soccer, played them both intelligently and well, and enjoy both sports up through eighth grade.  Upon entering high school, the sporting scene shifted to either the high school teams or expensive and all-consuming club teams.  Without recreation-level teams available, Kelly has had to put aside her athletic career.  We expect that she will find plenty of opportunities to play intramural sports when she gets to college, but organized sports teams are just not in the rotation anymore.

Nevertheless, high school, even for most focused students, should not be entirely about class work.  With sports exiting the picture, Kelly has turned her extracurricular energies toward choirs and musicals.  The school has a well-organized choir program that integrates singers of all abilities in the first year, and distributes them throughout the program over the following three years depending on their experience and abilities.  The choir program also supplies the cast for the spring musical each year.  Kelly had a blast as a member of the ensemble in last year's production of "Guys and Dolls."  This year, she is in the ensemble for "Legally Blonde," a successful Broadway musical based upon the Reese Witherspoon film.

As with almost every extracurricular activity, parents are called upon to contribute their time and skills to support the musical.  Last year, Cheryl worked a concession stand during the performances.  This year, I volunteered (or rather, she volunteered me) to be one of the manly man who builds the sets.  Every weekend since January, shoehorned around baseball tryouts, practices and games, I have put in many hours helping construct sets for the musical.  My primary task was to assist the primary set designer/constructor with the most prominent background, a two-story apartment and curving staircase complex.

I have now spent more time in the cafeteria of Kelly's high school, where the building materials were located and where we did all of the initial construction, than I ever did in my own high school's cafeteria.   

The raw materials
 I had a great time working with a number of the other dads, learning about set construction (which is a bit more elaborate now than it used to be), and, of course, using power tools.  It will be nice to see a little bit of me up on stage.

The nearly finished product
Kelly spends more time at school than she does at home in these days of final rehearsals.  She is starting to see the whole show come together and is very excited for the performances to begin.  I am certain the students will put on a terrific show as always.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Turn The Page

The calendar imposes upon nature an artificial sense of renewal every thirty days or so, and on a much grander scale every 365 days.  By the fortuity of a flip of the calendar page, January is the month when everything starts over, fresh and new.


January 1st charms, with its parades and football games.  The day is lit less by its own brilliance, though, than by the leftover glow of Christmas, glad tidings and good will to all family who don’t see each other often enough and thank God for these few days off.  New Year’s Day stands against shadow, because it marks the end of the seemingly interminable holiday season, which sputters to a start with tykes in costumes, picks of steam through the feasts of Thanksgiving and lumbers to its happy crescendo at Christmas.  After a month of office work slowing down, vacation plans consummated, gifts purchased and given and idle time rediscovering the people we believe we really are when not tearing around trying to meet the unstoppable demands of the daily routine, the gleaming newness of New Year’s Day is a mirage.  It is not a day that looks forward to the shine of the year to come, it is a day that reflects all that came before it.

Because January, truth be told, is a miserable month.  February is not worse only because there is simply less of it.  January is dark, cold and wet, and treats December like a houseguest who has overstayed his welcome.  Business that slows over the last six weeks of the preceding year in deference to the holidays snaps to warp speed to pack the work of eight weeks into four.  Many students must endure finals in January, after spending the Christmas break trying to ignore the building dread that they really should be studying during all that time off.   Christmas seems nearer in June than on January 3rd.   

So the weather has generally been sunny for the early part of this year, Michael has made us all proud by earning a spot on the travel baseball team and proving by his play that he belongs there, and Kelly survived finals to turn in excellent grades in a full load of terribly demanding classes.  That’s about the best that can be said for the month this year.   I am only now (literally, today) finally digging out from under what has been the most burdensome, stressful eight week period of work in my career.  And when the month starts like this, it is not destined to go down in history as one of my top-ten favorites:

Unscheduled airbag test -- yep, they work

And yet, while I have no desire to live these last couple of months over again, I can’t help but be content with all we do have, even in this deepest of winters:  our health, our family, our faith, our jobs, and our friends. 

Still, March is just hours away.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Called Up To The Show

January means baseball, right?  Our youth league begins its practices in February in preparation for the March-to-June season, so the evaluation day to give the coaches a look at the players they will pick for their teams always happens in mid-January.  This year, the evaluations were last weekend, under clear blue but very cold skies.

The evaluation for Michael was a little different than in years past.  The division Michael has moved into is no longer limited to teams playing other teams from within our league.  Three teams will compete against each other and teams from the two immediately adjacent towns.  Two additional teams, divided by age, will compete as travel teams against leagues from a broader local area.  The players trying out for those teams had to attend two days of evaluations rather than one.  They also knew that the rosters for those teams were largely set before the evaluations even started, based on the All-Star teams from last summer.  For 11U new team, it was widely known that one of the star players had decided to play in a different league this season, freeing up one roster spot for the team.  Every other player was planning to come back.  The 10 or so kids trying out who had not already played on the All-Star team last year were essentially competing for a single spot on the team.

Michael was apprehensive going into the evaluations, as he usually is.  He had a good first day, though, simply playing the way he knows how to play.  His pitching, in particular, caught the attention of a lot of the dads and coaches.  A number of them came up to me to say that they noticed how well Michael was playing.  Some of the boys who clearly would be on the team told Michael the same thing, offering their opinion that he had taken the available spot on the team.

After the first evaluation session, Michael was flying high.  He knew he had done well and was rightfully proud of himself.  He returned to the field in the afternoon with me to help administer the rest of the evaluations; I could hardly keep him off the field.  Michael's coach from fall ball made a point of telling me that he had spoken with the 11U coach about Michael, and that in his opinion.  Michael was a lock to make the team.   

It was only after the good first evaluation that Michael allowed himself to want to make the team.  I assured him he had done well, but that was always on the bubble.  I told him that even if he didn't make the travel team, he would have a great time on the house league teams, one of which would be coached by his fall ball coach.  He was fine with that, but knowing that he stood a good chance of making the top squad made him want it more.  After second day of evaluations which consisted mostly of hitting, Michael was nervous that he had not hit with enough power to wow the coaches.  What he didn't see was that a lot of the power hitters performed very poorly against the soft-toss pitching at the evaluation, while he always made solid contact.  All he could think about was the roster announcement Wednesday evening.

Wednesday evening, the call came.  Among eleven familiar names, his was the new one for the 11U team.  After three years of playing in this league, Michael has clawed his way to the top.  This is a very nice validation of all the extra work he has put in to improve.  He is a fun-loving kid, but there are not many out there who listen to coaches better or train as seriously as he does.  He could not be more happy, and we could not be more proud. 

It's official

Now, of course, the hard work starts.  He will get a uniform with his name on the back, but he will also be expected to play at a very high level.  It seems daunting, but I believe he's up for the challenge.  As I constantly tell him, if he simply plays the way he knows how to play, he will give the team what it needs.  Plus, with expert coaching and excellent teammates, he should make rapid progress in his own development.  I suspect games will be a bit more tense than they used to be, as the play transitions from purely recreational to largely competitive.  However, all these boys feed off of competition, no matter how nervous it may make them.  Whether I will survive the season is a different story entirely.  Thankfully, all I will have to do is go to games and take pictures.

Best of all, Michael's peers made it known at the evaluation how glad they were that it looked like he would make the team.  He drew more satisfaction from that than anything else.  We all yearn for a place to belong, and that place is almost always defined by who occupies that space with us.  Sports may be in many respects a world of artificial urgency and ad hoc camaraderie, but the bonds between peers are real.  Right now, before any strikeouts or errors, hits or wins, the joy of making the team matters most of all.